A.O. Smith
Training videos will pair an instructor with a 'color commentator.'

A.O. Smith’s online training helps educate today’s busy contractor

Dec. 14, 2017
Online education for the technical trades can be a much more entertaining and engaging endeavor than most of what America’s top universities are churning out.

Online education for the technical trades can be a much more entertaining and engaging endeavor than most of what America’s top universities are churning out. For example, A.O. Smith’s online education division — dubbed A.O. Smith University — reached more than 54,000 contractors in 2016 compared to somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 contractors a year in its conventional classroom. The unique combination of cost savings, convenience and snappy presentation has created an avenue that has changed the way trade professionals learn — and the response has been markedly positive. Tens of thousands of contractors are turning to this newer, simpler way to improve their craft.

Moreover, it’s been estimated that there will be a shortage of about 80,000 HVAC technicians by the end of this decade. There’s no easier or more economical way to train employees than by using the A.O. Smith University approach.

Because training is so important to the his company, Scott Taylor, assistant vice president of Taylor Gas Co. in Lexington Park, Maryland, said his team has incorporated A.O. Smith University into the new hiring process and continuing education for their service technicians. According to Taylor, the training keeps the technicians apprised of changes in the market; it keeps the tech's skills sharp; and it offers an opportunity to new hires to have a clear understanding for a product they may have never experienced before.

“We participated in A.O. Smith University to gain a better understanding of the product line we see and touch every day.  A.O. Smith University also offered an opportunity to provide training to our staff that had little to know experience with water heaters,” said Taylor.

“After discovering A.O. Smith University,” continued Taylor, “we encouraged all of our technicians to participate in the online training. I also participated in the training and found it very informative and easy to navigate.”

For Bruce Kuchinka, senior project manager and trainer, Summit Facility and Kitchen Service, Golden Valley, Minn., training is the key to retaining employees and providing professional service. “At the cost of doing business today, the client is having to pay more for services.  Our strategy is to provide the best possible value for the process the client has to pay.  Additionally, as the equipment becomes more complex and energy consumption is more critical, we need to be at the ‘top of our game’ to maintain equipment as it was intended,” said Kuchinka.

Presenting vs. presentation

An important facet for A.O. Smith U. is to present video content in a way that is familiar and easy to digest.

“Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) content presented by elite universities, for example, has not been created for video,” according to Henry James, director of A.O. Smith University. “Most are recordings of classroom lectures, and the audience is basically watching the professor talk to a class. We tried that and it turns out that people prefer speakers who are presenting to the camera rather than watching a live classroom presentation.”

Just like in many popular TV segments, A.O. Smith’s training videos will typically pair an instructor and “color commentator” to bring the material to life. This emcee-sidekick format has worked well for years on shows like This Old House, and studies have shown that it keeps students much more engaged than watching one person at a chalkboard.

Quality video production has been another key for contractor engagement. In the training world, it’s a term that’s often synonymous with the phrase pipe dream, but A.O. Smith University has cracked the code with its customized studio that creates cutting-edge courses tailor-made for contractors. The studio in Ashland City, Tenn., features impressive technology found in actual television studios such as teleprompters, stage lighting rigs, a production control room and multiple 4K digital video cameras capable of capturing eight million active pixels for ultra-high resolution.

Like many contractors, James knows the technology is meaningless without the ability to replicate a hands-on training experience. A.O. Smith University actually takes this concept a step further by using its 4K cameras to show students technical procedures in high-definition from four or five angles, something that’s impossible in a physical classroom.

Any contracting business with internet can access the catalog of educational videos. And an entire team can watch tutorials when they’re not on a job.

But what if a contractor has questions, or is unsure of whether he or she has executed an installation or repair correctly? Two-way communication — where contractors can demonstrate their work directly to a training representative — is a central piece of many of A.O. Smith University’s online courses, such as “Tankless Teardown,” “Heat Pump Water Heater,” and others.

Despite A.O. Smith University’s success with video, there are limitations, James said. “Video is engaging, but it is not always memorable with one viewing, so we have created an accompanying printable file that includes the basic material covered,” James said. “That idea came from cooking shows, where you can download the recipe instead of having to remember each step of the process.”

To take it one step further, James’ team is starting to create mini-video classes that run five minutes or less, covering basic facts and focusing on one fix.

Cost and convenience

Perhaps most importantly for any contracting firm, regardless of size, is the potential of online trade education to capitalize on cost savings and convenience. If a contractor flies a few service techs to another city for on-site training, it can easily cost thousands of dollars. Similarly, a small contractor with five trucks can hardly afford the downtime of sending two or three techs away for training.

Comparatively, there are no extra out-of-pocket costs to utilize online training. Any contracting business with internet can access the catalog of educational videos. And an entire team can watch tutorials when they’re not on a job. Additionally, the image quality of 4K makes the videos easy to view even from a tablet or smartphone.

“A.O. Smith’s ability to provide online training and education is second to none. Whether viewed by an entry-level technician or a seasoned veteran, the training is concise, to the point and easy to comprehend,” said Kuchinka. “I highly recommend that every service provider and contractor alike takes the time to view the educational videos and make them part of your training platform. I will continue to use it for my training with my technicians.”

“Enrolling was easy, participating was a breeze and the training vignettes are timed for convenience. Most of the staff that took the training did so at their own pace and in the comfort of their own home,” said Taylor.

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